Republicans in Arizona fight back against Justice Department complaints, setting the stage for a potential confrontation over the Maricopa County recount.
Arizona officials overseeing a Republican-commissioned recount of the November presidential election in the state’s largest county dismissed questions posed by the Justice Department this week, raising the prospect of a dispute between state and federal officials over the audit.
Pamela S. Karlan, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote a letter to the Arizona state Senate president on Wednesday alleging that a private contractor’s recount of nearly 2.1 million ballots in Maricopa County may violate federal law, which requires ballots to be safely stored for 22 months after a federal election.
“We are concerned that Maricopa County election records, which are expected to be maintained and preserved by federal law, are no longer under the ultimate hands of elections officials, are not properly safeguarded by contractors, and are therefore vulnerable to harm or loss,” she wrote.
Karlan also raised concerns in her letter about a plan by the private contractor hired to conduct the audit, Florida-based Cyber Ninjas, to survey voters and inquire about whether they voted in November, as county records indicate. Karlan asserted that such interviews could constitute a violation of federal statutes banning voter intimidation.
Former Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who serves as the audit’s spokesperson, said Thursday that state Senate President Karen Fann intends to inform the Justice Department in her own letter that federal interference is unnecessary.
Fann intends to contend that the ballots at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix are safe and secure 24 hours a day.
Bennett added that while Cyber Ninjas has not yet started questioning voters, the organization has vowed not to engage in any bullying tactics.
“This is an Arizona Senate-Maricopa County matter,” he said. “We see no need for another party to intervene.”
The Justice Department intervened for the first time as Arizona’s top elections official, Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, separately detailed a number of issues identified by election experts monitoring the recount on behalf of her office, including ballots left unattended.
Hobbs later told reporters that she was one of a bipartisan group of secretaries of state who met with Justice Department officials on Thursday to express their concern about the situation in Arizona.
“This has the ability to set a precedent,” she said. “We believe they are developing a playbook to replicate this around the country.”
Hobbs said in an interview with The Washington Post that she is unsure of the Justice Department’s course of action. “I believe they’ve reached a point where they believe they cannot legally send in observers,” she said. “However, they are undoubtedly paying attention to what is occurring.”
A request for comment from Fann’s spokesperson went unanswered. The official Twitter account for the recount, @ArizonaAudit, tweeted late Wednesday, “Arizona has the authority to perform this audit independently of the Feds!”
Chris Sautter, a political consultant and professor of election law at American University, said that if federal officials suspect ballots will not be protected, they can file a complaint in federal court asking a judge to halt the audit or order changes. He acknowledged that election officials who violate federal law face criminal penalties.
The legislation cited by the Justice Department in its letter goes all the way back to the civil rights period, when it was enacted to prevent municipal election officials from destroying documents indicating that Black voters were denied registration during their attempts, Sautter said.
Republicans in the state responded aggressively to the Biden administration’s inquiry.
Wendy Rogers, a Republican state senator who took office in January, sent a tweet urging the Justice Department to stay out of the case. “Do not touch Arizona ballots or voting devices unless you want to serve time in an Arizona prison,” she wrote.
Over the protests of the Republican-controlled Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the Republican-led state Senate ordered the recount, using a subpoena to seize equipment and ballots from county facilities.
Hobbs expressed concern in her letter Wednesday about the process’s security, which started last month and has progressed slowly.
Three experts working on her behalf who spent time on the Coliseum floor in recent days told reporters Thursday that they witnessed behaviors inconsistent with election officials’ best practices.
They mentioned that procedures varied according to counting table. Stacks of ballots were not recounted when they were transported and treated, as is customary to ensure no ballots were lost or misplaced.
Ryan Macias, a former acting director of qualification and testing for the United States Election Assistance Commission, said that he observed a team of ballot counters remove a stack of ballots from others and position it on a nearby table, where it sat unattended and unmonitored for an extended period of time.
Following his notification, the ballots were “migrated” back into a box with other ballots.
“There is no way, if you had to go back and find the ballots they were, since they did not remain in their original order,” he explained.
Hobbs also noted in her letter that the state Senate has a lease on the Coliseum that allows it to be used for the recount only until May 14, when the building is booked by local high schools for high school graduation ceremonies.
Bennett stated that approximately 200,000 votes have been counted so far — less than 10% of the total. He added that audit officials are looking at ways to box up materials needed for the recount and return to the Coliseum later to complete the operation. He said that he has been informed that the building will not be available until early July.
Hobbs’ allegations, he said, were “completely baseless” and “simply reexpressions of her opposition to the audit from the start.”
The controversial recount comes months after the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and Gov. Doug Ducey (R) approved President Biden’s narrow win in Arizona.
Federal and state judges also denied charges that the vote was tainted by fraud. Additionally, two county-commissioned audits concluded in February that election equipment operated correctly and accurately counted votes.
However, former President Donald Trump and his allies have continued to claim, without justification, that voting irregularities occurred. Doug Logan, the CEO of Cyber Ninjas, has repeated those statements, and Trump allies are collecting private funds to supplement the $150,000 in public funds agreed to spend on the audit.
Trump has stated that he hopes the Arizona audit will prompt similar investigations in other states — a sobering prospect for election officials who have stated that partisan-led post-election audits will continue to erode public confidence in democratic elections.
Among Trump’s supporters, enthusiastic support for the Arizona campaign has become a new way to demonstrate loyalty to his 2020 election statements.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York), during an appearance on former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon’s podcast on Thursday, defended the Arizona audit. Her remarks come as she challenges Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) for a leadership position in the House Republican conference, citing Cheney’s outspoken criticism of Trump’s election fraud.
Stefanik said, “I completely support the audit in Arizona.” “We want accountability and openness for the American people. What have the Democrats been so afraid of?”